Trad-climbing with Toby

Last year Toby of Northern lights blog made a trip over to Stockholm, and we met up for a brief climb at Münchenbryggeriet. Shitty cold weather made it less than pleasant, although the reward of a few Guinness afterwards compensated. For Summer Michi, Marty (two German climbers), Toby and I decided to make a four-day trip to Bohuslän in southwest Sweden for some trad-climbing (Toby's writeup of the trip is here).


I'm a newcomer to climbing, having just started a year and a half ago (originally to increase my grip strength for Brazilian Ju-Jitsu, and boy has that worked out well). I did as I always do, like a little Stalin, to single-mindedly cajole, bully and blackmail everyone I know into climbing with me. You too, dear reader, should start climbing. Anything I enjoy I cannot help but think you too would enjoy (at parties most conversations I have with people end up with them nervously promising me that they will indeed try BJJ, or climbing, or kayaking or snorkelling or moving to Sweden and marrying a blonde nymph, usually while slowly backing away towards the door). In case you know as little about climbing as I did a year ago, I will briefly explain what trad-climbing is, and why it's a terrible idea.

Top rope
The easy way to start climbing is with a 'top rope', a rope goes from your climbing partner, through a secure anchor at the top of the wall, and then back down to you, to be tied into your harness. As you climb up the wall, your partner pulls in the rope through a brake (called a belay device), and if you fall, the belayer catches the rope with the brake and you fall no more than a few decimetres. Safe as houses!

Top-roping is as close to being perfectly safe as it is possible to get when climbing. Climbing above your skill level has no penalties, apart from looking like a mong when you can't even get off the ground. The difficulty is purely physical, can you manage to pull yourself up the wall? The feeling of being constantly secured with a top rope allows you to take bigger risks than if you are leading, and also you either carry very little of the ropes weight, or if the belayer is really keeping the rope tight it might even be pulling you up the wall a little. (God knows it can get tough when there is a little too much slack in the rope...)


Sport leading
You tie into the rope, and you climb up a wall that someone has previously drilled and set bolts into, and every now and again you reach a bolt and you clip your rope onto that bolt with your quickdraws. If you fall, your belayer catches you with the brake and you only fall as far as the last bolt you clipped. Safe as a moderately solid tent in a storm!

Sport lead-climbing increases the difficulty, now you have to manage to pull yourself up the wall, haul up the weight of the rope and quickdraws as you climb, as well as occasionally hanging on with one hand while you clip in. That's not the hard part though, the real reason it makes top-roping look like child's play is the fear. In top roping you have almost nothing to fear, as long as your belayer doesn't fall asleep. Leading (sport or trad) means climbing over your nice safe protection, and knowing that every move you make upwards towards the next piece of protection means a potential fall of double that distance downwards. This fear of falling is the real challenge. And that hammering to your confidence means (at least for me) that you will climb badly, and be less fluid and daring than you would be with a top rope, increasing your fatigue and the risk of falling. (The guy taking the horrible fall in the video below, Dave Macleod, is one of the best trad-climbers in the world and has an excellent book on climbing that I hope to write a little about soon).


Trad
Finally if you're out for full independence and freedom, you can trad-lead. You head to a cliff, and place your own protection as you climb. You put little bits of metal-onna-string into cracks and hope they are stuck in there, and then clip into that. If you fall, and your protection doesn't just pop out, you only fall as far as your last piece of protection! Safe as a yarmulke in 1930's Berlin!

Now you have the pressure of worrying how well the protection is placed. Will it take a fall? If it has to take a fall, will the rock it is jammed into take the force? And on top of that, while the top roper concentrates entirely on holding onto the wall, and the sports climber just has to slap a quickdraw onto the bolt, the trad climber must fiddle around with masses of gear, finding the right size nut or cam to squish into the cliff, and all of this usually with one hand, the other of course holding him onto the wall with a sweaty, white knuckled grip of death. Trad-climbing gives you all the physical demands, as well as the mental demands on your ability to climb well over protection, and on top of that has one more demand, skill. You could go up a route placing protection in every nook and cranny on your way, but if you don't know what you're doing (or if the rock is flakey) then all it will do is give you something to watch as you fall to your death, you can enjoy the sight of all this expensive aluminium rocketing out of the wall as the rope yanks downwards.

This increasing difficulty is reflected in the amount of gear you need on your rack. A top rope climb requires nothing, a lead climber requires a load of quickdraws, and a few carabiners and slings to make an anchor with. And the trad climber is weighted down by a load of quickdraws of different lengths, tons of slings and carabiners, dozens of nuts, hexes, cams and two big brass balls.
The difference in difficulty between top-roping and leading is very apparent in the grades I can handle. Top roped I can grin my way up a 6b, swear my way up a 6C and hang-dog my way up a 7a. (Hang-dogging is just one of the thousands of sometimes clever, sometimes excruciating terrible climbing slang words and phrases, in this case it means you climb a route with many falls or rests on the way). When leading though, suddenly the helmet appears on my head and the grades drop, I can grunt up a 6a and just recently shat myself up a 6b+ with a metric ton of swearing and sweating and crying.
Trad is irresistible to me. It appeals to me in the same way cross country skiing appeals to me over tracked skiing, or long-skating over lakes and rivers appeals to me over rink skating. It allows total freedom, you bring your gear and your skills and nothing limits where you can go except yourself. Nobody needs to set up anchor spots for you, or drill and glue bolts into the wall for you. In all the books about mountaineering I read as I became interested in climbing, it was the pages about how to place trad gear that ended up having the most toast crumbs and tea stains in them.
Trad is not something to just brazenly attempt out of curiosity though. I might have read plenty about it and poured over lots of figures of stickmen showing a 'How to' in 4 easy steps, but I would have a hard time literally trusting my life to something I'd never tried before. Tuition is the name of the game, I would need someone experienced in the ways of trad to guide me, and so when Toby proposed the idea of a road trip to Scandinavian trad hotspot, Bohuslän, I jumped at the offer.


Bohuslän
Toby is ridiculously experienced, he has a detailed logbook of his climbs over at UKclimbing, from which it's clear he tries his hand at every and any possible way to get up cliffs. Happily for me he also has a ton of patience, I'm not known for my ability to be a good student but Toby has two sons and has that 'Dad' aura of assured composure. Which is maybe why trad appeals to him, it's definitely not a sport for the jittery.

We drove for the whole day, stopping briefly for a quick sport climb at Ågelsjön. The change in landscape as we approached Bohuslän was fascinating, the flat plains of South Sweden were at first infrequently, and then more and more periodically interrupted by high jagged granite crags bursting out from the earth. The climbing guides for Bohuslän list a huge number of routes, but there must still be many thousands of routes yet to be discovered amongst all those cliffs.

We start out with a long, sweaty, terrible slog through the forest to find Flaket (55m 4+ **) , an easy climb up the slabby Möhättan. Toby leads, and I follow cleaning up the gear. I learned a lot during this trip from chatting to Toby about the gear, but almost equally much from following his lead and seeing how he had placed the gear. It felt like a good start, safe and easy.

We also tried out a nasty sports route on the same crag, Oddny (15 m 5). Very slabby (leaning inward), smooth climbing that totally relied on slow careful movement and good climbing shoe rubber. I got the first (and only) bolt clipped but had to give up at that point. It felt distinctly cartoonish as I stood in one position and took steps upwards, but had my feet just slip and slide over the same ground. The sun was beating down so hard it felt like the stone itself was sweating. Toby assaulted the route with superior technique and finished it in style.

Next we drove to Välseröd, where Toby and I attacked Jungfrun (30 m 4 **). I lead the first part of the climb (20 m 2+), and then belayed Toby up the second half (20m 4). Difficulty-wise the split was not quite 50:50, my part was a wide and gently sloping pathway ending in a wide, sun-warmed seat. Toby's part was a much more serious crack cutting straight up the corner of the cliff.

I felt a little ridiculous in my helmet, placing gear along my little pathway, I kept expecting some mum with a buggy to trundle past me, or some kids to fly past on bikes. When Toby met me at the belay spot though, he had plenty of feedback about how I placed the gear. Then I belayed him to the top, and followed him on what was one of the first cracks I had ever climbed. Jamming one hand into a long vertical crack, tensing it and putting your whole bodyweight on it while you reach up with your other hand to repeat the process, all this under a relentlessly hot Swedish summer sun, it was intense. We also ran up the second half of Torsketaket (10 m 6).

Relief to the abraded hands, sunburnt skin and broiled muscles came in the evening when we swam in one of the many beautiful lakes. We kept up the daily swim for the whole trip, every day was filled with tense, strained climbing on baking-hot granite walls, under the pounding sledgehammer midsummer heat, and yet after one dive into the icey waters all that washed away and left one feeling refreshed and revitalised.

The next day we checked out Brappersberget, a beautiful cliff by the coast, behind a graveyard. The climbing was fantastic, lovely long routes with plenty of cracks running up and across the face. Toby lead St. Pauls (30 m 5+) and Big Ben (25 m 5 *). I followed and cleaned and later lead Kyrkråttan (25 m 3+ *), and Toby cleaned and gave me feedback on how each piece was placed.

The sea breeze was delicious, especially once we'd reached the top and had the the view to enjoy while the sweat was blown off us.

The routes we did weren't very difficult, Toby took it easy on us because we were so new to trad climbing and we could handle all the climbing relatively well. However it was still exhausting. I think the mental strain when dealing with trad gear is just massive compared to sports or top rope climbing. Even with comfortable holds for hand and feet, the placement of gear can take so long every placement puts a lot of pressure on the body and drains the stamina, and I for one slept like a dead baby every night. Which was convenient, because I was sleeping with a pretty bizarre set-up.

The day before we headed to Bohuslän I had grabbed some leftover si-nylon and mosquito netting from my MYOG bin, and decided to whip up a quick'n'dirty tarp for the weekend. And as well as that I had decided to try using a VBL (vapour barrier liner) with a silk liner to sleep in. The idea is that even though the temperature dropped to a chilly 12 °C at night, with a watertight liner I could skip having a sleeping bag or quilt and save a half kilo or so.

It wasn't about saving weight (this time at least), as we slept at a campsite only minutes from the car park. It was more about seeing if it was possible to be comfortable sleeping in what is essentially a plastic bag. I had already used in Winter to protect my down quilt from icing up, and now I wanted to try it in Summer. Since this trip I have had all my Summer trips in this set-up, and would continue to use a VBL without a quilt/sleeping bag until late Autumn.

The tarp was about what you could expect from too little material and too little time, but it managed to keep the mosquitos out and in order to learn as much as possible from the mockup, I have been sleeping under this tiny tarp since then. It's MYOG done wrong in almost every way possible.

Toby's had a more professional and luxurious set-up, as well as having the skills to pitch the thing well.

The last crag we assaulted in Bohuslän was Fedjan, where the Toby/Tomás team got split up and I managed to lead Greasepit (10 m 4+ ) with Michi seconding. It felt a lot easier than the climbs at Brappersberget, the shortness of the route took a lot of the pressure off. The next morning we left early, driving past Ågelsjön again and doing a few more routes. Toby led Divaleden (11 m 5 **), and I lead Raggiga Rune (11m 5-). Toby cleaned the route and this time around the feedback on the gear placement felt a lot more positive, and the corrections were a little more anticipated.

It was a great trip, with a lot of fun climbing and swimming. The thing I recall best was the educational aspect of the trip, it felt a bit like going on some kind of course. Anyone who's ever tried to learn any skill from a book might know how it is, to spend hours pouring over grayscale figures and detailed step-by-step guides, and then the massive difference in understanding once you find someone who can take you through it practically. Before this trip buying trad-gear would have felt like buying a set of juggling swords, gear that without the appropriate skillset is basically asking for a messy suicide. After the trip I felt gently confident buying a pack of DMM wallnuts, I won't be climbing anything even remotely near my sports/top-rope limit, but for some mixed routes or easy trads I can begin to build up the skills in order to add one more tool to my climbing knowledge base.